07 April 2015

Sermon – “In Accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

As I look at Jesus in the gospels, I find myself again and again being captivated and challenged the remarkable conversations that he had with all kinds of people. Think of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, for example, and her fascination over Jesus’ offer of living water. Or how about Jesus’ words with the wealthy young man who came to him earnestly seeking the way to eternal life? Then there was the nighttime exchange with Nicodemus, who only grew more and more confused as Jesus told him of his need to be born from above.
There are at least a couple of conversations, however, that the gospels do not let us in on—conversations that I would very much like to have heard. One of them is the one that took place as the sun was setting on that first Easter Day. It is in Luke’s gospel that we read of the two disciples who were sadly trudging their way home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles. As they walked, a stranger came up and began to walk with them. He asked them what was engaging them in such deep and agitated discussion. When they informed him that it was about Jesus, who had been put to death just days before and about whom there were now rumors that he had been seen alive, he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” “Then,” Luke continues, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).
Every time I read that passage (and it is one of my favorites in all the Bible) I find myself asking with puzzlement and not a little frustration, “What were those truths that the prophets declared?” “What were ‘the things about himself’ in the Scriptures that Jesus interpreted to them?”

The Cross

The same question crops up when we read this morning’s passage from 1 Corinthians. What we have read this morning are the two earliest written accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Mark likely composed his gospel around the year 65 AD. But 1 Corinthians comes to us from a decade or more before that, around 55 AD—so within less than a generation of the actual events that the gospels portray. There we read the apostle Paul writing, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”
Most of you will recognize Paul’s words from what we recite Sunday by Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” It is highly probable, that just as we recite the creed (many of us from memory), so Paul too was reciting a formula that was already well known to his fellow believers in Corinth. Aside from the events themselves, what is significant about that statement is the repeated phrase “according to the Scriptures”—that both Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave were all laid out centuries before in the pages of the Old Testament.
We can certainly see that in the case of Jesus’ death. The sublime poetry of Isaiah 53 bears eloquent witness to it. Let me read it to you from a contemporary Jewish translation:
He was despised, shunned by men,
A man of suffering, familiar with disease.
As one who hid his face from us,
He was despised, we held him of no account.
Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God;
But he was wounded because of our sins,
Crushed because of our iniquities.
He bore the chastisement that made us whole,
And by his bruises we are healed.[1]
Or think also of the plaintive cry of Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have You abandoned me? …
All who see me mock me, they curl their lips, they shake their heads.
‘Let him commit himself to the Lord; let Him rescue him,
let Him save him, if he is pleased with Him.” …
My life ebbs away: all my bones are disjointed;
my heart is like wax, melting within me;
my vigor dries up like a shard; my tongue cleaves to my palate;
You commit me to the dust of death…
I take the count of all my bones while they look on and gloat.
They divide my clothes among themselves, casting lots for my garments…
We do not have time to examine the whole sacrificial system of ancient Israel or the numerous other passages in the Psalms and the Prophets that portend the cross. No, we have no difficulty in affirming with Paul and the creed that “Christ died … in accordance with the Scriptures”.

The Grave

No, the challenge comes with the second half of the statement, that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. Where do we find this in the Old Testament? In actual fact, if you look at the Old Testament, its perspective on death is bleak at best. By and large for the writers and singers of the Old Testament death is the end of the road. That message comes through loud and clear in verses such as these:
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence. (Psalm 115:17)
In death there is no remembrance of you; in the grave who can give you praise? (Psalm 6:5)
Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:10-12)
A living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:4,5,10)
You can see from passages like these (and there are plenty more) that by and large the Old Testament’s perspective on death was grim indeed. The best you might hope for after you died was to be fondly remembered by your descendants and perhaps in some sense live on in them. This was the position held by the Sadducees in Jesus’ day. More than once they are described as “those who say there is no resurrection”. And they held that position not because they were agnostics or trying to be radical, but because they believed that were being true to the witness of the Scriptures.

The Resurrection

How then, if this was the case, could Paul and the Corinthians confidently profess that Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”? What did Jesus share as he walked along the road to Emmaus with those two disciples? To find the answer we need to take our Old Testaments once again; and if we read them carefully we will begin to see amidst the gloom and the darkness some tiny pinpricks of light.
Beneath the sadness of the Psalms surrounding death for example, there is a quiet but unflagging confidence that what we see from this side of the grave is not the whole picture, that there is more.
My heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to the realm of the dead, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:9-11)
I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:23-26)
Those few tiny hints, that almost imperceptible adumbration, that we find in the Psalms, begins to become a rising chorus as we move into the prophets. From Isaiah we read,
The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food… And he will destroy … the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. (Isaiah 25:6-8a)
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (Isaiah 26:19)
Then there are these words from Daniel:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:2-3)
And perhaps clearest of all from Hosea we read,
Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)
But to my own thinking, some of the most amazing words were spoken by Job. In the midst of his unutterable suffering we find that beneath all his self-pity there is an unshakeable conviction, which he expresses in those profound and moving words,
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
Although those words came from deep within his heart and he could hear them coming from his mouth, Job still found them almost impossible to believe—too good to be true. “My heart faints within me!” he cried. It seems to me that that was the same reaction of the two disciples in Emmaus. They stared back and forth at each other across the dinner table and said to each other in amazement, “Did not our hearts burn within us while … he opened the Scriptures to us?” It was the reaction of the women who first came to the sepulcher that morning. They ran from the tomb, seized by terror and amazement. The men refused to believe them, accusing them of spreading idle tales. And then there was Thomas, who would not believe until he had put his fingers into where the nails had pierced Jesus’ hands.
Yet what they would discover was that suddenly with Jesus’ resurrection all those tiny points of light sprinkled through the Scriptures had come together to form a single blazing sunrise lighting up the whole sky with its brilliance. In a few moments’ time we will have an opportunity to affirm once again our own faith that Jesus has risen. May it not be for us just a matter of words. Rather, may it be with that same sense of amazement, of overwhelming, as those who first heard the news.
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, this God has prepared for those who love him.” “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:9; 15:57).
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

[1]     Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures, The Jewish Publication Society, 1985

No comments: